Alex Preston / bookshelf

This Is Your Mind on Plants by Michael Pollan


Highlight [page 9]: As an example, coffee and tea, which have amply demonstrated their value to capitalism in many ways, not least by making us more efficient workers, are in no danger of prohibition, while psychedelics—which are no more toxic than caffeine and considerably less addictive—have been regarded, at least in the West since the mid-1960s, as a threat to social norms and institutions.

Highlight [page 10]: Each represents one of the three broad categories of psychoactive compounds: the downer (opium); the upper (caffeine); and what I think of as the outer (mescaline). Or, to put it a bit more scientifically, I profile here a sedative, a stimulant, and a hallucinogen.

Highlight [page 12]: Most of the molecules that plants produce that change animal minds start out as tools for defense: alkaloids like morphine, caffeine, and mescaline are bitter-tasting toxins meant to discourage animals from eating the plants that make them and, should the animals persist, to poison them. But plants are clever, and over the course of evolution they’ve learned that simply killing a pest outright is not necessarily the smartest strategy. Since a lethal pesticide would quickly select for resistant members of the pest population, rendering it ineffective, plants have evolved subtler and more devious strategies: chemicals that instead mess with the minds of animals, confusing or disorienting them or ruining their appetite—something that caffeine, mescaline, and morphine all reliably do.

Highlight [page 13]: Scientists recently discovered a handful of species that produce caffeine in their nectar, which is the last place you would expect a plant to serve up a poisonous beverage. These plants have discovered that they can attract pollinators by offering them a small shot of caffeine; even better, that caffeine has been shown to sharpen the memories of bees, making them more faithful, efficient, and hardworking pollinators. Pretty much what caffeine does for us.

Highlight [page 14]: The case can be made that the introduction of caffeine to Europe in the seventeenth century fostered a new, more rational (and sober) way of thinking that helped give rise to the age of reason and the Enlightenment

Opium, Made Easy

Highlight [page 37]: izing a him to describe the effects of a cup of poppy tea. “It’s not a knock-you-on-your-ass sort of thing, not like smoking opium. In fact, a lot of people wil t a k l you they forget that they are high. It starts with a tickling feeling in the stomach that then rises up into the shoulders and head—this feeling of just . . . joy. You feel optimistic about things; energetic but at the same time relaxed. You’l joy. You functional: you won’t say anything stupid and you’l l remember everything that happens. You won’t nod out, though you wil l feel a strong desire to close your eyes. Any pain you You won l go away; the tea wil l also relieve exogenously caused depression. That’s why poppy tea is served at funerals in the Middle East. It can make sadness go away.

Highlight [page 37]: ppy tea is served at funerals in the Mid ly available flowers could produce such effects, and at times the claims in Hogshire’s book had reminded me of earlier “household highs”—smoking banana peels, for instance (“they cal minded low yel earlier “household purred back in 1967), eating morning-glory seeds (purported to be a hal lucinogen), or sipping cocktails made from Coca-Cola and aspirin. Could it be there was some sort of placebo effect at work here

Highlight [page 38]: l into this century, Russian, Greek, and Arab immigrants in America have used poppy-head tea as a mild sedative and a remedy for headaches, muscle pain, cough, and diarrhea. During the Civil War, gardeners in the South were encouraged to plant opium for the war effort, in order to ensure a supply of painkil lers for the Confederate Army.

Highlight [page 52]: . For the poppy tea didn’t seem to add anything new to consciousness, in the way that smoking marijuana can produce novel and unexpected sensations and emotions; by comparison, the tea seemed to subtract things: anxiety, melancholy, worry, grief. Like the opiate it is, or consists of, poppy tea is a pain killer in every sense. In my notes I wrote “definitely lightens the existential load.”

Highlight [page 53]: one of those scientific that a molecule produced by a flower out in the world would turn out to hold the precise key required to unlock the physiological mechanism governing the economy of pleasure and pain in my brain? There is something miraculous about such a correspondence between nature and mind, though it too must have an explanation. It might be the result of sheer molecular accident. But it seems more likely that it is the result of a little of that and then a whole lot of co-evolution: one theory holds that Papaver somniferum is a flower whose evolution has been directly influenced by the pleasure, and relief from pain, it happened to give a certain primate with a gift for horticulture and experiment. The flowers that gave people the most pleasure were the ones that produced the most offspring. It’s not al people the most pleasure were the ones that produced the most tomato, two other plants whose evolution has been guided by the hand of human tomato,

Highlight [page 54]: . No doubt his cider was subject to “abuse,” and from 1920 to 1933 its manufacture was a federal crime under the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. During those years the farmer violated a federal law every time he made a barrel of cider. It’s worth noting that during the period of anti-alcohol hysteria that led to Prohibition, certain forms of opium were as legal and almost as widely available in this country as alcohol is today. It is said that members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union would relax at the end of a day spent crusading against alcohol with their cherished “women’s tonics,” preparations whose active ingredient was laudanum—opium. Such was the order of things less than a century ago

Highlight [page 55]: Someday we may marvel at the power we’ve invested in these categories, which l proportion to their artifice. Perhaps one day the government won’t care if I want to make a cup of poppy tea for a migraine, no more than it presently cares if I make a cup of valerian tea (a tranquilizer made from the roots of Valeriana officinalis) to help me sleep, or even if I want to make a quart of hard apple cider for the express purpose of getting drunk. After al l, it wasn’t such a long time ago that the fortunes of the apple and the poppy in this country were reversed


Highlight [page 64]: According to the researchers I’d interviewed, the process of withdrawal had actually begun overnight, while I was sleeping, during the “trough” in the graph of caffeine’s diurnal effects. The day’s first cup of tea or coffee acquires most of its power—its joy!—not so much from its euphoric and stimulating properties than from the fact that it is suppressing the emerging symptoms of withdrawal

Highlight [page 66]: In the case of Coffea, whose range had previously been limited to a few corners of East Africa and southern Arabia, its appeal to our species allowed it to circumnavigate the planet, colonizing a broad band of territory, mainly in the tropical highlands, that reaches from Africa to East Asia, Hawaii, Central and South America, and now covers more than 27 million acres.

Highlight [page 66]: Also unlike the edible grasses, the fat seeds of which we consume with virtually every meal, all we want from the tea and coffee plants are the molecules of caffeine and some characteristic flavors we extract from their leaves and seeds, respectively. So all we do with them is trivially lighten the weight of their vast biomass before simply dumping it all in landfills. Tons of these most valuable of all agricultural commodities are shipped from the tropics to the higher latitudes, there to be briefly soaked in hot water and then thoughtlessly discarded. Isn’t there something ecologically absurd about moving all these leaves and seeds around the world merely to inflect water

Highlight [page 66]: Coffee and tea had their own reasons for producing the caffeine molecule, and as is often the case for the so-called secondary metabolites produced by plants, this is for defense against predators. At high doses, caffeine is lethal to insects. Its bitter flavor may also discourage them from chewing on the plants.

Highlight [page 67]: Many of the psychoactive molecules plants produce are toxic, but as Paracelsus famously said, the dose makes the poison. What kills at one dose may do something more subtle and interesting at another.

Highlight [page 67]: Caffeine does, in fact, shrink the appetite and discombobulate insect brains.

Highlight [page 67]: In a famous experiment conducted by NASA in the 1990s, researchers fed a variety of psychoactive substances to spiders to see how they would affect their web-making skills.

Highlight [page 67]: ost of the various plant chemicals, or alkaloids, that people have used to alter the textures of consciousness are chemicals originally selected for defense

Highlight [page 70]: Hard as it is to imagine, Western civilization was innocent of coffee or tea until the 1600s; as it happens, coffee, tea, and chocolate (which also contains caffeine) arrived in England during the same decade—the 1650s—so we can gain some idea of the world before caffeine and after.

Highlight [page 70]: Tea is also older than coffee, having been discovered in China, and used as a medicine, since at least 1000 BC, though tea wasn’t popularized as a recreational beverage until the Tang dynasty, between AD 618 and 907

Highlight [page 71]: Initially the new drink was regarded as an aid to concentration and used by Sufis in Yemen to keep them from dozing off during their religious observances. (Tea, too, started out as a kind of spiritual NoDoz for Buddhist monks striving to stay awake through long stretches of meditation.

Highlight [page 71]: Within a century, coffeehouses had sprung up in cities across the Arab world. In 1570 there were more than six hundred of them in Constantinople alone, and they spread north and west with the Ottoman Empire

Highlight [page 72]: The notion of drinking any beverage piping hot was itself exotic, and, in fact, this proved to be one of the most important gifts to humanity of both coffee and tea: the fact that you needed to boil water to make them meant that they were the safest things a person could drink.

Highlight [page 74]: London’s coffeehouses were distinguished one from another by the professional or intellectual interests of their patrons, which eventually gave them specific institutional identities. So, for example, merchants and men with interests in shipping gathered at Lloyd’s Coffee House. Here you could learn what ships were arriving and departing, and buy an insurance policy on your cargo. Lloyd’s Coffee House eventually became the insurance brokerage Lloyd’s of London. Similarly, the London Stock Exchange had its roots in the trades conducted at Jonathan’s Coffee-House. Learned types and scientists—known then as natural philosophers—gathered at the Grecian, which became closely associated with the Royal Society; Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley debated physics and mathematics here, and supposedly once dissected a dolphin on the premises.

Highlight [page 75]: The seventeenth-century war of the sexes over coffee led to the association of tea with femininity and domesticity that endures to this day in the West.

Highlight [page 76]: Charles II, worried that plots were being hatched in coffeehouses, decided that the places were dangerous fomenters of rebellion that the Crown needed to suppress. In 1675 the king moved to close down the coffeehouses, on the grounds that the “false, malicious and scandalous Reports” emanating therefrom were a “Disturbance of the Quiet and Peace of the Realm.” Like so many other compounds that change the qualities of consciousness in individuals, caffeine was regarded as a threat to institutional power, which moved to suppress it, in a foreshadowing of the wars against drugs to come.

Highlight [page 77]: Voltaire was a fervent advocate for coffee, and supposedly drank as many as seventy-two cups a day.

Highlight [page 78]: Denis Diderot compiled his magnum opus while imbibing caffeine at the Café de Procope. It’s safe to say the Encyclopédie would never have gotten finished in a tavern.

Highlight [page 83]: Cognitive psychologists sometimes talk in terms of two distinct types of consciousness: spotlight consciousness, which illuminates a single focal point of attention, making it very good for reasoning, and lantern consciousness, in which attention is less focused yet illuminates a broader field of attention. Young children tend to exhibit lantern consciousness; so do many people on psychedelics. This more diffuse form of attention lends itself to mind wandering, free association, and the making of novel connections—all of which can nourish creativity. By comparison, caffeine’s big contribution to human progress has been to intensify spotlight consciousness—the focused, linear, abstract, and efficient cognitive processing more closely associated with mental work than with play.

Highlight [page 84]: It was a monopoly the Arabs zealously guarded: to prevent anyone from growing coffee anywhere but in the lands they controlled, Arab traders roasted coffee beans (which are seeds, after all) before they were exported, to ensure they could not be germinated

Highlight [page 85]: fore the arrival of coffee and tea, alcohol was being consumed in Europe morning, noon, and night; not only in taverns after dark but for breakfast at home and even in the workplace, where it was routinely given to laborers on their breaks. The English mind in particular was befogged most of the day by more or less constant infusions of alcohol. Campaigns for temperance sprang up from time to time, but without a substitute beverage they failed to gain traction. Enter coffee

Highlight [page 86]: Surely it is more than a coincidence that caffeine and the minute hand on clocks arrived at more or less the same historical moment.

Highlight [page 89]: The introduction of tea to the West was all about exploitation—the extraction of surplus value from labor, not only in its production in India but in its consumption in England as well. In England, tea allowed the working class to endure long shifts, brutal working conditions, and more or less constant hunger; the caffeine helped quiet the hunger pangs, and the sugar in tea became a crucial source of calories

Highlight [page 90]: employers were quick to recognize and seize on the potential benefit of caffeine—to themselves. (Actually, one of the first American “employers” to seize on the practical value of caffeine was the Union Army during the Civil War. The army issued each soldier thirty-six pounds of coffee a year at the same time the economic blockade of the South deprived the Confederacy of coffee. According to historian Jon Grinspan, the loss of coffee took a toll on the

Highlight [page 91]: morale—and perhaps also the performance—of Confederate soldiers, while its easy availability to Union soldiers gave them an edge. One Union general went so far as to weaponize caffeine, ordering his soldiers to fill their canteens with coffee before battle and planning his attacks for the times when his troops were maximally caffeinated. But the amped troops symbolized a larger truth: that the Civil War represented the victory of the caffeinated North, with its sped-up industrialized economy, over the slower, uncaffeinated economy of the Confederacy. Ever since, the American military has made caffeine in all its forms—including tablets and a specially formulated chewing gum—readily available to its soldiers

Highlight [page 91]: It wasn’t until the 1950s that the modern concept of the coffee break—free coffee plus paid time in which to enMoy it—was fully established as a legally recognized institution in the American workplace. This happened at a neckwear company in Denver called Los Wigwam Weavers. (The story is told in the 2020 book Coffeeland, by historian Augustine Sedgewick.)

Highlight [page 94]: What I’ve described here is the direct effect of caffeine on the brain; the chemical also has several indirect effects, including increases in adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine. The release of dopamine is typical in drugs of abuse, and probably accounts for caffeine’s mood-enhancing qualities—the cup of optimism!—as well as the fact that it is habit-forming. Caffeine is also a vasodilator and can be mildly diuretic. It temporarily raises blood pressure and relaxes the body’s smooth muscles, which may account for coffee’s laxative effect. (This could explain some of coffee’s early popularity; constipation was a serious matter in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.)

Highlight [page 95]: Coffee and tea are also the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet, a fact that may by itself account for many of the health benefits of coffee and tea.

Highlight [page 97]: The principal reason that caffeine is used around the world is to promote wakefulness. But the principal reason that people need that crutch is inadequate sleep. Think about that: We use caffeine to make up for a sleep deficit that is largely the result of using caffeine.

Highlight [page 100]: For every four-dollar latte, only a few pennies ever reach the farmers who grew the beans, most of whom are smallholders working a few steeply raked acres in some rural corner of a tropical country.

Highlight [page 105]: Let’s face it: The rococo structures of meaning we’ve erected atop those psychoactive molecules are Must culture’s way of dressing up our desire to change consciousness in the finery of metaphor and association

Highlight [page 112]: Humberto had told me it takes fifty or so coffee beans to make a single cup of coffee; after a half hour of picking, I had collected enough beans for maybe four or five cups, and already my back and feet were in an uproar of pain

Highlight [page 114]: Perched somewhat crookedly on the steep slope of one of these caffeine mountains, my main thought was, You really have to give this plant a lot of credit. In less than a thousand years it has managed to get itself from its evolutionary birthplace in Ethiopia all the way here to the mountains of South America and beyond, using our species as its vector. Consider all we’ve done on this plant’s behalf: allotted it more than 27 million acres of new habitat, assigned 25 million humans to carefully tend it, and bid up its price until it became one of the most precious crops on earth.

2. The Orphan Psychedelic

Highlight [page 123]: Although it was a German chemist who, in 1897, first isolated the psychoactive molecule in Lophophora williamsii, the peyote cactus, and in 1919 an Austrian chemist who first synthesized mescaline, the cactus itself has been used by the Indigenous peoples of North America for at least six thousand years, making it the oldest-known psychedelic, as well as the first to be studied by Science and ingested by curious Westerners

3. In Which We Meet the Cacti

Highlight [page 134]: Martin Terry, the botanist who had offered to give me a tour of the Texas peyote gardens before the stay-at-home order went into effect. Terry studied at Harvard under Richard Evans Schultes, the legendary ethnobotanist who specialized in the use of psychoactive plants by Indigenous cultures.

4. The Birth of a New Religion

Highlight [page 137]: Peyote has been used by Indigenous peoples of North America for at least six thousand years (and possibly much longer), but its use by American Indians goes back only a century or two. The Native American Church wasn’t officially established until 1918, and the religious use of peyote by American Indians wasn’t documented until the 1880s—suggesting that the modern peyote ceremony is a revival of an ancient practice that had been lost, or suppressed

Highlight [page 139]: Perhaps the longest-known continual use of peyote by an Indigenous people is by the Huichol, or Wixáritari, people, who have lived deep in the Sierra Madre of Mexico for thousands of years.

5. Peeking Inside the Tepee

Highlight [page 158]: Like other psychedelic compounds, the mescaline in peyote induces a state of mental plasticity, one in which you are highly suggestible and therefore open to learning new patterns of thought and behavior. While in this trance state, rigid narratives about yourself (“I can’t get through the day without a drink”; “I am worthless”; and so on) tend to soften until it becomes possible to construct new ones, typically narratives of transformation or rebirth. Apart from the group setting, this model closely resembles “psychedelic therapy” as it is being practiced today in the West

6. An Interlude: On Mescaline

Highlight [page 161]: On psilocybin or LSD, the obMects of our attention are liable to come to life and transform before our eyes: a garden plant, suddenly sentient, might return our gaze, or a chair might take on a personality and turn malevolent. Very often on psychedelics, obMects become something much more than themselves

Highlight [page 163]: It was this—the immensity of existing things—that began to overwhelm me during the next phase of the day, as peak intensity approached and things took a darker turn. I neglected to mention that Hamlet’s claim to be king of infinite space was conditional: the very next line is “were it not that I have bad dreams.” Here they came. Now it felt like this was more reality than I could handle. Wide open, my senses were admitting to awareness exponentially more of everything—more color, more outline, more texture, more light. It was, to quote from Huxley, “wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying.” Indeed. I felt as though things could easily tip over into terror. Huxley’s trip had convinced him that the function of ordinary consciousness is to protect us from reality by a process of reduction or filtration—he spoke of consciousness as a “reducing valve,” and the metaphor had never seemed more apt. Throwing open the doors of perception was wonderful, in the literal sense of the word, but without the usual filters of consciousness there came the fear “of being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cozy world of symbols, could possibly bear.”

Highlight [page 164]: What was happening in my brain?! The notion that there is so much more out there (or in here) than our conscious minds allow us to perceive is consistent with the neuroscientific concept of predictive coding. According to this theory, our brain admits the minimum amount of information needed to confirm or correct its best guesses as to what is out there or, in the case of our unconscious feelings, in here

Highlight [page 164]: These top-down predictions of reality and prior beliefs are a bit like maps to sensory and psychological experience, and as long as they represent the actual territory well enough for us to navigate it successfully, there’s no need to flood the system with lots of

Highlight [page 165]: unnecessary detail. Natural selection has shaped human consciousness not necessarily to scrupulously represent reality but to maximize our survival, admitting only the “measly trickle”—Huxley’s phrase—of information needed for us to get by rather than the full spectrum of what there is to perceive and think

Highlight [page 166]: I made a note so I wouldn’t forget what I’d learned after the mescaline wore off: “Had mescaline shown me the door in the wall?” If so, then the door was—Must as Sandor Iron Rope had tried to tell me!—more like a mirror, for everything I needed to learn was not on the other side of it but right here in front of me, and it had been right here all along

7. Learning from San Pedro

Highlight [page 168]: Taloma discovered the healing power of the psychoactive plants used in Indigenous ceremoniesayahuasca, peyote, Wachuma, tobacco. She was on “the medicine path.”

9. Plan C

Highlight [page 182]: I had been surprised to read that many shamans regard tobacco as the most powerful of all plant medicines, and it figures prominently in ceremonies in many traditions, including the Native American peyote meeting. Westerners today bring a lot of negative attitudes to tobacco, regarding the plant as irredeemably evil, but, as Taloma explained, that is only because white people had abused and exploited this sacred plant when they arrived in the Americas, transforming it from a sacred medicine into a lethal and addictive habit

Highlight [page 182]: There are a few different ways tobacco is used in Indigenous ceremonies, but usually as a means of purging evil or destructive energies. In Taloma’s version, the recipient stands before her and closes one nostril while she offers a brief prayer that ends with the words “body, mind, and spirit.” On the word “spirit,” you inhale deeply while Taloma, using a syringe, shoots tobacco Muice deep into your sinus cavity. A wave of fire races across the top of your skull from front to back and then travels down your spine. It is a bracing sensation. Taloma encourages you to stomp your feet, shake out your arms, move your hips, vocalize with abandon, and let go of whatever emotions you are holding. After the firestorm subsides, your mind feels freshly scrubbed and, at least for a while, cleared and wonderfully calm.

Highlight [page 184]: I’m afraid banality is an unavoidable hazard of working with psychedelics; they are profound teachers of the obvious. But sometimes those are exactly the lessons we need.